A delightfully charming, wickedly sexy Regency-set Christmas romance novella from New York Times bestselling author Amelia Grey!
The Marquis of Wythebury, is expecting an ordinary Christmastide at Hurst—until he is set upon by a beautiful miss who takes him to task for not allowing his young nephews to play outside. In his mind, a five and seven year old needn’t get chilled in the snow; better to plop them in front of the fire with a book. Few people have ever been brave enough to challenge him over anything, much less the rearing of his wards. The cheeky Miss Prim has no such compunction. No matter how fetching he finds her, he can’t give in to his attraction…for she is the sister of his best friend.
Growing up the middle child of five rambunctious girls, Lillian Prim doesn’t understand why two young boys visiting Hurst don’t know how to play until she meets their dashing guardian. The Marquis of Wythebury is commanding and intensely serious-minded. To her surprise, she’s captivated by him. It’s all she can do not to give into her feminine fantasies about her kissing him. Lillian has no intention of falling in love with the Marquis, but she will create Christmastide mischief and teach the boys and the handsome Marquis how to play, in Mistletoe, Mischief, and the Marquis.
About the Author
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Amelia Grey read her first romance book when she was thirteen and she's been a devoted reader of love stories ever since. Her awards include the Booksellers Best, Aspen Gold, and the Golden Quill. Writing as Gloria Dale Skinner, she won the coveted Romantic Times Award for Love and Laughter, and the prestigious Maggie Award. Her books have sold to many countries in Europe, Indonesia, Turkey, Russia, and Japan. Several of her books have also been featured in Doubleday and Rhapsody Book Clubs. Amelia is the author of more than twenty-five books, including the Heirs' Club trilogy and the Rakes of St. James series. She's been happily married to her high school sweetheart for over thirty-five years and she lives on the beautiful gulf coast of Northwest Florida.
Read an Excerpt
Mistletoe, Mischief, and the Marquis
By Amelia Grey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Amelia Grey
All rights reserved.
Seth Wythebury, the second Marquis of Wythebury, had never given much credence to old adages, but now he was ready to believe the saying "If the milk wagon can be turned over, it will be."
He looked in the mirror he'd propped up on top of the shaving bureau and dried the last traces of soap and beads of water from his face and neck. When he'd first received the invitation to spend the Christmastide Season at Hurst, he'd declined. It'd been just over a year since his sister and her husband had died of a fever within days of each other. He hadn't felt right about leaving his two young nephews alone at this time of year. But Crispin, the Duke of Hurst, had sent another letter insisting he come and bring the lads with him.
That bit of encouragement was all Seth needed to accept, but he should have known it wasn't a good idea.
For the past few months, Seth had been a man of few vices. After having spent the entire year at Wythebury, the lure of a few bachelor pursuits had been too tempting to resist. Visions of hunting, riding, and shooting during the day, along with one or two all-night card games at the village tavern beckoned. A soft woman to warm his bed and a good bottle of brandy seemed in order too. Besides, there was always the possibility that Crispin had invited some other members of the Heirs' Club to spend time with him at Hurst. They would enjoy relaxing by the fire in the evenings with a glass of port, maybe a game of chess.
While Seth pulled his shirt over his head and stuffed the tail into the band of his trousers, he heard childish squeals and shouts of laughter. Even though it was late when they arrived at the guest wing of the estate last night, it appeared Heron and Fallon were already up. Apparently, after his meandering bluster about not knowing how to care for young boys, his valet had managed to get them up and dressed after all.
Seth grunted a quiet laugh while he reached for his collar and neckcloth. The thought of the fastidious Tabard doing the job that was usually left to a governess was amusing.
Their grueling carriage ride with endless chatter from his nephews had been cold and long. A three-day journey over frozen roads that were too often only deep bumpy ruts had been bad enough, but yesterday morning when they'd started to leave the inn where they'd overnighted, Mrs. Barstaple told him she'd awakened feeling poorly with a deep, ill-sounding cough. Not wanting to subject the lads to another day in a cramped coach with the sick woman, Seth had decided it was best to leave the governess at the inn to recuperate while they continued on to Hurst. She would join them when she was well enough to travel. Until then, a quite reluctant Tabard would see to it the boys were dressed and fed — it would be up to Seth to see to it their studies were accomplished.
Before his sister had died, she'd made Seth promise to be not only a guardian but also a father to her young sons. Perhaps she'd forgotten that she and Seth had lost their own father when Seth was but a mere boy. That didn't matter. He had to grant her last wish.
Seth didn't know much about fatherhood, and nothing about children — except that they ran wherever they went at breakneck speed and discarded their wooden toys wherever and whenever it pleased them to do so. They liked to jump too. Off beds, or steps, or anything they could climb on top of. Perhaps when the lads were older, they'd see the value of going at a more leisurely pace.
In the meantime, Seth would continue to carefully watch over them, teach them all he knew, and prosper their estates and yearly incomes. Seth's vow to his sister would be fulfilled when Heron and Fallon came of age. Once they were educated and old enough to take responsibility for their own inheritances from their mother, their father, and two sets of grandparents, Seth's debt to his sister would be paid.
Sounds of the boys' merriment floated up to his room again as he tied his neckcloth. It sounded as if they were outside. In this dreary weather? Seth frowned. He was already worried Fallon and Heron would come down with whatever it was their governess had caught, and now, being out in this weather, they could catch lung fever too. Grabbing his waistcoat off the bed, he walked over to the window. Snow covered the ground, the shrubs, and the yew hedge. It even clung to the spindly leaf-stripped trees outlining the distant horizon.
"Snow," he muttered to himself while buttoning his quilted dark brown waistcoat. "And not even past Boxing Day."
Icy wind greeted him when he opened the window to listen. Gleeful, youthful screams of delight sounded louder. The lads were definitely outside in the cold. He would have thought Tabard knew better than to allow them out on a bitter morning like this, but perhaps the valet was truthful when he'd said his knowledge of children didn't extend any further than Seth's.
This was not a good beginning to his two-week stay at Hurst. He would have tried calling to them but knew his voice would fall on deaf ears. They would give him no regard for instructions until he was close enough so they could look him in the eyes.
Shoving his arms into his coat, he exited the bedchamber and headed down the stairs, fearful the boys might be susceptible to a dire illness before he could get them back inside. The enticing aroma of baked bread and cooked fruit reached him when he made it to the bottom. Figs? Plums? Something sweet and delicious, for sure.
Having spent many enjoyable stays with the Duke of Hurst in his home, Seth knew the house well. He strode straight to the back door and opened it. Peals of excited laughter greeted him. Bounding down the steps in polished boots, he marched along the side of the house on crunchy snow, intent on putting a stop to this madness.
"Tag, you're it!" Seth heard one of the boys yell.
"Not for long," a female voice responded as he rounded the corner and took a frosty ball of snow squarely on his nose — launched by the most beautiful young lady he'd ever seen. Her aim couldn't have been better if she'd been a marksman.
Noise from the boys quieted instantly. Tiny ice crystals fell from his face. The young lady was perhaps more startled than he. Her full, tempting lips formed a surprised O. She was out of breath and her cheeks were flushed from the cold, her exertion from fending off two boys, and no doubt a bit of blushing for hitting the wrong target too. But it was the unveiled amusement he saw lurking deep in her beautiful blue eyes that made his lower body thump and his stomach do a slow roll.
Were Seth a lesser man, the unanticipated volley might well have unsettled his manhood. Instead, he flicked off the last vestige of offending snow with his hand in a bothered gesture. Once he'd cleared his vision, the breathless beauty overtook all else. She was tall with straight shoulders and willowy thin, and with the way her tightly woven spencer hugged her body, he could see there was a soft rounded fullness to her breasts. Her bonnet was a fitted cap of dark blue velvet adorned with wide ribbons that covered her ears and tied in a bow under her chin. It looked as if more than one snowball had landed on it and the rest of her clothing too.
A snicker reached his ears.
Forcing his gaze away from the lady, Seth turned to Fallon and Heron. The five-year-old had covered his mouth with wet-gloved hands, trying his best to silence his laughter. Heron held a rather large clump of snow between his two hands, readying it for another lob toward their fetching prey.
Seth's movement seemed to spur the young lady into action. "Excuse me, sir," she said in a feminine rush of excitement. "I'm dreadfully sorry."
She wouldn't have to be sorry if she hadn't had the brothers out in this ghastly temperature.
"I was aiming for Master Heron. I didn't mean to hit you. I hope it didn't hurt."
At least she had the decency to look and sound apologetic, but who was she, and why was she having a snowball fight with the lads?
"I think I can withstand a ball or two of snow," he said with a hint of a grin on his lips to let her know there was no harm done. "Especially if it's in order to save my nephew, but why would you want to hit my ward in the face?"
Her lips formed another silent O and she gave him a quick curtsey before hastily saying, "My lord, you are their uncle? The Marquis of Wythebury?"
"I am. Why does that surprise you?"
"I expected you to be older, or that is to say, I thought you would look much older. Not so tall and, well, never mind. Getting back to Master Heron, I didn't want to hit him."
Seth's brows rose skeptically against the chilling wind that blew his hair across his forehead.
"That is I meant to say, I didn't want to hit him in the face. I aimed for his shoulder."
"In that case, it's a good thing you aren't one of the king's guards. He may well be missing an eye if you were in his palace."
More snickers of laugher wafted past Seth. He didn't mind that the lads thought it amusing he'd caught a shot meant for them. What interested him more presently was the rather bold lady standing in front of him. Truth be told, he was a bit amused by her too. Was she a guest? A neighbor he'd never met?
Though he intended his comment in jest, as the boys obviously knew, the lady didn't. His innocent remark got her back up in a hurry. She gave him what he was sure she considered an effective stare of disapproval.
"My aim is quite good, my lord," she declared, taking issue with him. "You merely stepped in front of my throw and took the shot."
It intrigued him that she didn't take kindly to his statement about her tossing ability and was courageous enough to let him know it. Other things about the stirring beauty attracted him as well. By her speech and the cut and fabric of her clothing he knew she wasn't a servant or even a poor relation to anyone at Hurst.
Be that as it may, it was best to tamp down his rising interest in her. She could be spoken for. He hadn't been informed if there would be other guests in residence at Hurst for a Christmastide visit. Perhaps someone from the Heirs' Club had landed himself an upstart chit. If so, she was gorgeous for sure, probably full in the purse, but obviously lacking some social manners.
He sensed she didn't have the countenance of a married lady, but what young miss would have the poise and self-confidence to continue a conversation with a marquis after she'd splattered him in the face with a wad of snow? That fact alone begged him to keep their conversation going for the moment.
Seth turned toward the boys again. They were properly dressed in their coats, gloves, and hats, but playing in the freezing cold when there was no sunshine to help warm them was courting a disaster he didn't want to deal with. He looked around for his valet who was nowhere to be seen. Seth's hopes for a few masculine pursuits while at Hurst were fading fast. He could see now it wouldn't be wise to leave his nephews alone with his valet all day and all evening too.
Seth spoke to the seven-year-old. "Heron, why isn't Tabard with you?"
"He's in the house, Uncle. He told us he'd be busy getting your clothing ready for this evening's dinner and for us to find a comfortable place to read our books until you arrived to give our lessons for the day."
"Hmm," he said, the biting cold nipping at his uncovered fingers. "So then how is it you ended up outside and with no books?"
Heron's dark brown gaze slowly rolled up toward the sky and down to his feet, yet he remained mute. His younger brother watched him and did the same.
"Excuse me, my lord," the lady said, stepping closer to Seth. Then as if to win him over, she flittered her eyelashes in the most becoming way and he momentarily forgot his purpose. "Please don't scold them. They are delightful little fellows, and I must admit that it was my idea they come out here."
Somehow he didn't doubt that in the least. And it appeared she had already won over the lads because neither of them were willing to lay the responsibility for their errant behavior on her. That was noteworthy as well.
"You two go inside and warm yourselves by the fire," he told the wide-eyed youngsters. "I'll see you shortly."
Heron reached over and playfully pulled Fallon's hat down over his eyes, laughed, and took off running toward the house. Fallon struck out blindly at his older brother before shoving the woolen headpiece up his forehead. Yelling for Heron, he chased after him.
"They are not to blame for being out here instead of waiting as instructed. I saw them sitting on a bench along one of the upstairs corridors, quiet and reading. I started talking to them and eventually asked if they'd like to come outside and play in the snow with me."
"And apparently Fallon and Heron did so without asking permission from me or Tabard?"
Suddenly she seemed a bit perturbed, worrying her gloved hands and her full bottom lip. He had a feeling there was something more she wanted to say but was hesitant. Why?
He should just simply dismiss her from his thoughts, not concern himself further about her or what happened and head back inside where it was warm. Especially since it was bloody cold outside and he'd neglected to put on his cloak, gloves, or hat in his haste. But he was hesitant too. He wanted to learn more about this unconventional lady.
With her directness, not to mention her aim, she had captured his interest, and he wasn't ready to leave — no matter who she was. And he wanted to know what it was she wasn't saying.
"Am I correct the lads didn't ask permission before coming outside?" he prompted.
"Yes," she answered on a sigh of exasperation. "I'm afraid I made the unfortunate mistake of suggesting they ask their mother if they could play outside."
Seth went still. "You didn't."
"I had no way of knowing their mother had passed," she defended quickly. "I knew the Marquis of Wythebury and his nephews were coming, but I was never told their parents weren't coming. I was quite mortified when Heron told me she was in heaven with the angels."
Sincerity glowed in her large, expressive eyes that were such a light shade of blue it was almost as if he were looking through them. Her mentioning their mother must have been a shock to Heron and Fallon. They seldom talked about their parents anymore. They were adjusting quite well to their loss. So, despite the frustration he felt, he could forgive her that error. He couldn't fault her if she hadn't known about his sister's death.
Taking in a deep swallowing breath, she continued in a soft penitent tone. "So, naturally." She paused and looked down at her hands before saying, "It's so difficult to admit, but after they told me about their mother, I assumed their father was here with them."
Silently swearing to himself, Seth shook his head in exasperated disbelief. "You didn't," he said again.
"Oh, of course I did," she exclaimed at once. "How could I not? It was the next logical thing to say, to assume."
Seth felt his top lip twitch. Making no effort to hide his growing annoyance, he blurted, "It's maddening to think you could bring the deaths of their parents up twice."
"I agree with you completely," she admitted without offering an excuse. "Believe me, I was horrified by it too. Surely I meant no harm. How could anyone suspect that two such sweet-looking, well-behaved boys had lost their mother and their father?"
"After your first blunder, you didn't think to simply excuse yourself and try to find out something about the lads before you continued?"
"No, I didn't. I wish I had."
He appreciated that her tone and expression were heartfelt, but he was upset Fallon and Heron had to go through the memory of that sorrow again — twice.
"I felt absolutely dreadful," she continued. "So now you can understand why, after I had made such an appalling misstep, the only thing I could possibly do to make it up to them was insist they come outside with me to play in the snow. I wanted — I had to get their minds off the sad subject I'd brought up. I felt confident a snowball fight would do it. And we were having fun until —"
Uncertainty clouded her eyes. She hesitated to finish her sentence, but there was no doubt Seth knew exactly what she was going to say. What he wanted to know was whether she had the mettle to finish her thought. He'd bet a prized stallion she didn't. And, even though he was finding her more and more appealing, at the same time it felt good to see her with a small amount of discomfiture.
Excerpted from Mistletoe, Mischief, and the Marquis by Amelia Grey. Copyright © 2016 Amelia Grey. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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